(In October 2018, somehow, I seem to have managed to claw back some reading time; I think this may have been the point at which I decided to read for research on the train to and from work on the grounds that at least that way I was reading something. One of the things I picked was a French volume about viscounts, which was germane to what I then thought I was working on, and it occasioned me to stub several posts for the blog. The following one, though, I originally wrote in one go on 17th October, apparently mainly out of outrage. I’ve now defanged it somewhat and post it in the spirit of 2022 as far as I can, rather than that of 2018.)
This is a post of reflection, prompted by my having read a piece of someone else’s work that made me cross. Long-term readers will remember this happening more in my younger days; I said some angry things in print or indeed here, feelings were hurt, and I now try not to do the destructive-mode thing for the most part. After all, it’s not as if my own work is magically free of all error. But sometimes, what gets me is that I can see how it could have been done better because I know the stuff too, and this is one of those cases.
The piece that prompts this is a short chapter about the viscounts of Cerdanya.1 I have been learning a lot about viscounts lately. I began looking for stuff about the viscounts of Narbonne, because a cousin of Borrell II, with whom he may have grown up, married into their family. (We know this because she left something in her will to him and his brother.2) But the book in which that chapter lay contained studies of many another area’s viscounts, and also the reflection that actually it was only fringe areas of France that developed semi-independent viscounts, really, mainly from the very late tenth century until the twelfth, when either the Albigensian Crusade or the Plantagenets rather shook them out of their trees.3 And among these things are two articles by French scholars on Catalan viscounts, one by Dr Élisabeth Bille.
Now, my reason to care is that there is a chapter in my book which has a section on the viscounts of Conflent, and despite the title of Dr Bille’s chapter, that is effectively who it is about: the two families conjoined in the mid-11th century and she doesn’t trace the Cerdanya side back before that, while the viscount of Cerdanya whom she does mention, Unifred, discussed below, is problematic. My chapter was based on a larger part of my thesis, but my thesis was finished in 2005, didn’t go online till 2007, this book came out in 2008 and seems to have been based on a conference that must have happened earlier, and I only submitted the text of my actual book to the press in 2008… So neither of us could have known about the other’s work, and indeed I only find hers now.4 But of course we’re working off the same sources, so ideally our work would find the same things. This is not what has happened. My quibbles, enumerated, are these.
- In passing, Bille refers to Count Ermengol I of Osona dying in battle in one of several engagements with his cousins the counts of Cerdanya, in 942.5 This has been said by several people, but there’s no actual basis for it; a twelfth-century text from the place where he was buried says he died at Baltarga, and people have deduced that it should have been a fight with Cerdanya because that’s where the place is, but firstly no other source says this, secondly that source doesn’t say whom he was fighting and thirdly for that reason someone else has argued that he died defending his country from Hungarian raiders, which also could have happened but for which there is no more proof.6 So while this doesn’t really affect the overall conclusion much it made me suspect that trouble lay ahead.
- It becomes clear where when Viscount Unifred of Cerdanya first turns up. This man is very little attested, but he appears between 913 and 928 as a fidelis of Count Miró II of Cerdanya; then the next (and last) mention we have of him is in 954, when the Counts of Cerdanya and Besalú, Miró’s sons, wrote to King Louis IV asking for permission to seize Unifred’s property because he had rebelled against them.7 For Bille this shows that the counts could still depose viscounts at this stage and disinherit their heirs, but for me it shows the absolute opposite: not only did they need royal permission, leading to them contacting a king for the first time in their or their father’s lives that we know of, but also given that this was forty years after Unifred’s first adult appearance, he was almost certainly dead by now. And, as it turns out, his children actually did inherit a decent chunk of his property.8 Bille knows the charter that shows that, but doesn’t read it my way, or know of other Catalan work that did.9 In fact, she doesn’t use much current Catalan work on Catalonia at all. And this does all matter, because her overall argument is that viscounts changed from being biddable subordinates of the count to territorially-entrenched independents over the eleventh century, whereas I’d say Unifred shows that they were already independents in the tenth and had probably always been, so the change must be otherwise described.9bis
- A further example of this is Viscount Bernat of Conflent, Unifred’s grandson as it happens, though Bille does not know this. He ruled Conflent between 971 and 1001, in which as far as Bille is concerned the viscounts were still the counts’ assistants. Actually, as she must know, having read the same documents I have, Bernat never appeared with a count in his lifetime. He must have known them – he even shared care of a castle with Borrell II at one point – but he ran things entirely separately from them as far as we can see, something which was made much more possible by the fact that first his brother then his son were successive bishops of Urgell, meaning that the family had someone else who could represent them to the counts.10 As it is, Bille mentions Bernat once and moves on without discussion of either his ancestry or how his career sits at complete variance to her discussion. She moves onto Bernat Sunifred of Cerdanya, from the next century, so quickly that it’s easy to think that the two were the same man.11
- Another part of Bille’s argument is that the viscounts did not have assigned property or territories before about the mid-11th century; for her, they were essentially floating officers of the count. How they were maintained she never discusses, but to support her basic contention she says that none of her viscounts are named as viscounts of a particular place or territory before 1050.12 To which I say, Bernat of Conflent was so named at the consecration of the new church of Sant Miquel de Cuixà in 974, and the reason clearly is that two viscounts called Bernat were present so had to be distinguished, this one and one of Cerdanya (the latter, as far as we can tell, not a descendant of Unifred).13 It could be done, therefore; it just didn’t normally need to be said. Everyone at the time knew who the viscount was, after all. Now, when one goes and looks at the references Bille provides here (which is not easy, as they’re given on CD-ROM!14), she doesn’t know that document; but actually, she knows three others I didn’t in which viscounts of this family are named with territories prior to 1035!15 Yet in the chapter body she says that never happened, even though her reference is three cases where it did!
- Lastly and less importantly, Bille notes that this family managed to dominate the bishopric of Urgell for fifty years or so, till Bishop Ermengol, Bernat’s son, progressed himself to sainthood by falling off a bridge in 1035.16 After Bishop Eribau, who succeeded him, the counts managed to corner that see for themselves.17 Well, fair enough actually, except that unbeknownst to her Eribau was also a member of the same family, if not the exact same branch of it. Again, if she knew the relevant Catalan work she’d have known that.18
Now, with all that on one side of the balance, on the other I do understand how this sort of thing can happen. After all, if I go back and look at my thesis now I cringe in places at what I didn’t know and thought I did, and while this article was published four years after Dr Bille’s thesis it was presumably written much closer to it.19 If I were guessing what had happened here, it’s that by the time the editors got proofs back to her, she had perhaps found this extra stuff but they would only let her make changes to the digital section, not the print text, so correcting the references was all she could do. It’s also just hard to be up to date with literature in a country not your own. I’m always massively behind with the Catalan scholarship, because it’s so hard for me to find out what is being published and then get hold of it; the tricks I can perform in a UK environment of being present at enough events and conferences that I hear from active people and can use what they tell me to learn what I need to be aware of, I can’t do somewhere I don’t live (insert: as you can tell, a pre-Covid-19 perspective here). One winds up patching one’s ignorance with Google, and in 2005 that didn’t work as well as it does now. I’m acutely conscious of this just now because I am currently trying to work out how to do revisions on an article I unwisely wrote out of my normal area. Predictably, it has come back with reviewers’ comments indicating my ignorance, and setting me reading I will have to go to Cambridge, London and ideally Barcelona to do, because some of it isn’t available in the UK at all.20 In term-time, that is very difficult, and I will probably have cut some corners to answer these critiques by the time this post goes up.20bis Given that when that article comes out, someone could probably be just as cross about it, perhaps I should just recognise that sometimes this happens to people, forgive it and move on.
Except that… My mistakes have got caught by peer review; that is what’s supposed to happen. Bille’s got published. Moreover, however it happened, she ignores, sidelines or just plain misreads several documents that damage her argument seriously. Peer reviewers ought to have caught that—I would have caught it, even in 2006—but I don’t see how she cannot have known that the evidence conflicted with her argument. We’re supposed to do this right, after all; even if historians don’t believe we can actually know what happened, we have to be as careful as possible in trying to find out and as honest as possible about what we find. Without that, we have no claim to being experts, as opposed to opinion columnists, and without expertise there’s no justification for the profession at all. So I still think this needs pointing out. Probably it’s partly that it’s stuff I have written about, and therefore want to believe I got right, and she doesn’t agree. But I also think this shouldn’t have been published without being checked and fixed. So, this is the check. I cannot find any sign that Dr Bille has continued in the profession, so I guess that there will not be a fix; but at least if someone else is using the chapter, they can now see the problems too.
1. Élisabeth Bille, “Des vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne : du fidèle du comte au seigneur féodal (IXe-XIIe) siècle” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Vicomtes et vicomtés dans l’Occident médiéval (Toulouse 2008), pp. 143–155.
2. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Documents 1 (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascicles, doc. no. 346. The two brothers are the only distant kin or nobility mentioned, and it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to suppose that this implies some special memory of them from before she was packed off to Narbonne; such memories wpuld have to be childhood ones, when they would have been even younger than her. One could make a more realpolitikal argument that she was maintaining links with the counts beyond her neighbours, but if so this is the only one she tried doing like this, and I think that suggests that the personal link was determinative.
3. Hélène Débax, “Des vice-comtes aux vicomtes, des vicomtes aux vicomtés : Introduction” in eadem, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 7–19; for shaking from trees, see Mireille Mousnier, “Vicomtes de Gimois et de Terride : une difficile polarisation”, ibid., pp. 87–102, and Jeanne-Marie Fritz, “Marsan et Tursan : deux vicomtés Gasconnes”, ibid., pp. 115–127.
4. The relevant bits of mine are Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 133-141, developed from Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, London, 2005), online here, pp. 219-221.
5. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, pp. 144-145, referring to plural “heurts” between the kingroups; only one is known, and that was with Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona. On it, see for now Josep Maria Salrach i Marès, “Política i moral: els comtes de Cerdanya-Besalú i la comunitat de monges benedictines de Sant Joan (segles IX-XI)” in Irene Brugués, Xavier Costa and Coloma Boada (eds), El monestir de Sant Joan: Primer cenobi femení dels comtats catalans (887-1017) (Barcelona 2019), pp. 225–257 at pp. 229-231, developing earlier work of Salrach’s which could have been available to Bille.
6. Salrach, “Política i moral”, p. 228; Albert Benet i Clarà, “La batalla de Balltarga. Epíleg de la incursió d’hongaresos a Catalunya l’any 942” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals no. 9 (Barcelona 1983), pp. 639–640. The source is the Gesta Comitum Barcionensium, now best edited in Stefano Maria Cingolani (ed.), Les Gesta Comitum Barchinonensium (versió primitiva), la Brevis Historia i altres textos de Ripoll, Monuments d’Història de la Corona d’Aragó 4 (València 2012), pp. 9-160 at VI.2: “Ermengaudus vero frater eius, apud Baltargam bello interfectus, sine filio obiit.” And that’s all it says, in this single mention two hundred years later! So you’d think that as an idea it would have failed already, but since writing this post’s first version I have found Oliver Vergés Pons, “La batalla de Baltarga en el joc de la política comtal del segle X: la mort d’Ermengol d’Osona i la successió del comtat d’Urgell” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 48 (Barcelona 2018), pp. 901–923, online here, which returns to the Barcelona-Cerdanya theory and needs examination separately. The shortest version of my protest would be that none of the contemporary sources for his death mention the battle, but they do mention illness, and I think the battle was fictitious.
7. With Miró in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum IV: Els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 119; overseeing Miró’s will in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum 8: Els comtats d’Urgell, Cerdanya i Berga, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 111 (Barcelona 2020), 2 vols, doc. no. 229 (but published elsewhere as long ago as 1838); having his lands confiscated in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 2-3 (Barcelona 1926-1952), 2 vols, Particulars XL.
8. Pere Ponsich (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum VI: Els comtats de Rosselló, Conflent, Vallespir i Fenollet, rev. by Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica 70, (Barcelona 2006), 2 vols, doc. no. 490, first published in 1981; for the prosopography the relevant work needed here is Manuel Rovira i Solà, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Osona 1981), pp. 249–260, online here.
9. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, Annexe no. 43. On the complications of following up references in this volume, see n. 14 below.
9bis. In Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 144-147, indeed, I suggested that titles like ‘viscount’, ‘vicar’ and the like might indicate rewards issued to powerful independents for engagement with the comital power structure, rather than any actual office and responsibility, and I still think that was true in some cases, but one of the other posts I stub wrestles with this question separately.
10. Ibid., pp. 136-141.
11. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, pp. 149-150.
12. Ibid. p. 154.
13. Ordeig, Catalunya carolíngia 8, doc. no. 718, first published in 1979; Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, p. 135 n. 31.
14. I do, sort of, understand why some supporting material for academic work is best viewed online. There are things that won’t fit on a page’s format, interactive datasets that can’t be rendered in print, images that need to be in colour or scaled in ways that the print book didn’t allow for, and all these might, just, justify the peculiar awkwardness of needing a computer to read your print book usefully. But this is just a PDF, effectively another 220 pages of the book, and while I see how they might have been expensive to add, in the first place not so many computers even have CD-ROM drives any more, especially not laptops, so you may not even be able to read this book on your own computer, and in the second place a lot of it is just footnotes that any normal press process would expect in academic work anyway. It’s hard to see why they didn’t just publish it digital-only, given how awkward this mish-mash of technologies is…
15. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, Annexe p. 133 n. 21.
16. On Bishop Ermengol, the beginning of whose career we have documented here in the past, see for now Jeffrey A. Bowman, “The Bishop Builds a Bridge: Sanctity and Power in the Medieval Pyrenees” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 88 (Washington DC 2002), pp. 1–16.
17. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, pp. 150-151
18. Rovira, “Noves dades”.
19. My worst mistake in that was picked up in the viva, thankfully, and didn’t get to the version of record. There is a charter I’ve mentioned here before, in which a frontierswoman bequeaths some stuff to her deacon son, including what seem to be revenues from border-raiding. The Latin terms for these are ‘praedis et peccoribus’, and I had trouble translating the second term. William Whitaker’s invaluable Words program came up with the fairly hypothetical ‘little sins’, deriving it from ‘peccata’, and I ran with that and developed an argument that the scribe was imposing his moral view of this raiding onto the charter even though the transactors presumably thought it was cool. One of my markers pointed out, though, that ‘peccores’ would be a perfectly normal Latin word for ‘pigs’. That whole argument came out of the thesis as soon as I could bear to look at it again…
20. You may ask why I don’t inter-library loan it all. The answer is threefold: firstly, it would cost me ten pounds an item that I can’t charge to expenses, an ongoing argument; secondly, inter-library loan from Spain is really erratic and can take months to turn up if it comes at all; thirdly, it’s term-time, so if something does turn up quickly, and is restricted to the Library, and I also have marking due, I simply won’t be able to open it before it’s due back. Thus, I wind up taking the much more expensive option of going where it is at a time I choose, not least because that, I can charge to expenses without argument. But I’d rather be at home a few more weekends than this will all permit me, and of course, it shouldn’t be necessary to work in my own time to fulfil the requirements of a paid job, right? It just always, always is in academia. (Note: this whole note was written in 2018, but it does help explain why people might by now be frustrated enough to strike.)
20bis. Actually, in 2022, I haven’t, because I couldn’t get permission from work to go to the relevant library enough. I will finish the article when my managers care to make it possible for me to do so. Again, this is why we’re on strike.